Total Recall

Rank Christian Bale's 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the star of The Promise.

by | April 19, 2017 | Comments

He’s been Batman, Bateman, and battled Terminators — and this weekend, Christian Bale battles Oscar Isaac for the love of Charlotte Le Bon in The Promise, a romantic drama set against the backdrop of the Armenian Genocide. In honor of Bale’s latest cinematic excursion, we decided to take this opportunity to pause for a fond look back at some of the brighter critical highlights from an acclaimed career that’s still collecting them at an impressive pace. It’s time for Total Recall!


10. The Machinist (2004) 77%

Critics almost always fawn over actors who alter their bodies for a role, to the point where it’s even become sort of a joke for some film fans. There’s nothing funny, however, about the lengths Christian Bale went to for 2004’s The Machinist: wanting to adopt the physical appearance of a man who hadn’t been able to sleep for a year, he subsisted on a diet of coffee, apples, and tuna fish for more than four months, eventually dropping over 60 pounds before being ordered to stop losing weight. The work of a dedicated artist, to be sure — and it worked, making Bale something of a living special effect in Brad Anderson’s dark psychological thriller. Sadly, it also had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing pretty much everything else in the film; even those who haven’t seen The Machinist know it’s “the one where Christian Bale lost all that weight.” Fortunately, unlike its star, the movie has plenty of meat on its bones; in the words of the Arizona Republic’s Bill Muller, “though Bale deserves all the credit that can be heaped at his feet… there is far more to this sinister psychological thriller than just exhibiting [his] emaciated form.”

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9. Batman Begins (2005) 84%

Bale’s early films may not have been big hits, but they did cover a lot of bases, proving he could carry himself in everything from action epics and costume dramas to dark, low-budget thrillers — which is precisely what convinced Christopher Nolan that Bale was the right man to capture all the many facets of Bruce Wayne when he agreed to direct the long-in-the-making Batman reboot. Bale’s dedication to the role was immediately put to the test; after losing a dangerous amount of weight for The Machinist, he had to quickly reverse course — and he did, hitting the gym to pack on over 100 pounds in just a few months. The end result was the first of the big-screen Batmen to not only act the part convincingly, but look it, too — a good thing, since Nolan’s vision for the character’s origin story had plenty of dramatic depth to go with its fisticuffs. Though not all critics responded to Batman Begins‘ more realistic, less tongue-in-cheek approach (Rex Reed notably said it was “for morons”), most reviews were in line with the movie’s remarkable $370 million worldwide gross; as Desson Thomson of the Washington Post put it, “here’s how any great franchise should start: with care, precision and delicately wrought atmosphere.”

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8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) 87%

How do you take the 2008 financial crisis and turn it into an entertaining movie? Hand the reins to ex-SNL writer and frequent Will Ferrell confederate Adam McKay, stock the larder with a top-shelf cast that includes Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, and of course, Christian Bale, and focus your story on the trials and tribulations of a hedge fund manager. Oh, and while you’re at it, line up Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to explain modern finance. The end result is The Big Short, an all-star dramedy that manages to make banking shenanigans entertaining — no small feat, especially considering that many people are still dealing with the real-life effects of the story. As Dana Stevens put it for Slate, “One of the most appealing things about this very appealing movie — a stylistic Chex Mix of storytelling, satire, advocacy, and clip art — is its high regard for the intellect of the viewer.”

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7. The Big Short (2015) 88%

Bale’s early films may not have been big hits, but they did cover a lot of bases, proving he could carry himself in everything from action epics and costume dramas to dark, low-budget thrillers — which is precisely what convinced Christopher Nolan that Bale was the right man to capture all the many facets of Bruce Wayne when he agreed to direct the long-in-the-making Batman reboot. Bale’s dedication to the role was immediately put to the test; after losing a dangerous amount of weight for The Machinist, he had to quickly reverse course — and he did, hitting the gym to pack on over 100 pounds in just a few months. The end result was the first of the big-screen Batmen to not only act the part convincingly, but look it, too — a good thing, since Nolan’s vision for the character’s origin story had plenty of dramatic depth to go with its fisticuffs. Though not all critics responded to Batman Begins‘ more realistic, less tongue-in-cheek approach (Rex Reed notably said it was “for morons”), most reviews were in line with the movie’s remarkable $370 million worldwide gross; as Desson Thomson of the Washington Post put it, “here’s how any great franchise should start: with care, precision and delicately wrought atmosphere.”

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6. 3:10 to Yuma (2007) 89%

Elmore Leonard’s 1953 short story took its second trip to the big screen with this James Mangold Western, which managed to revisit Delmer Daves’ 1957 original — and substitute Bale and Russell Crowe for Van Heflin and Glenn Ford — without provoking many unfavorable comparisons. It didn’t hurt, of course, that the source material provides a classic example of the good vs. evil showdown that fans of the genre have always loved; all any Yuma update needed was a pair of solid actors to hold it down, and Mangold chose his wisely. Audiences rewarded the new 3:10 to Yuma with a healthy $70 million worldwide gross — and critics responded too, lauding Mangold’s direction and Bale and Crowe’s performances in equal measure. Writing for the Houston Chronicle, Bruce Westbrook called it “cathartic and intelligent” and “the best Western since Unforgiven,” going on to add, “while a wildly eventful action-adventure and outlaw shoot-’em-up, it’s also a vibrant story of heroism, villainy and hard-earned redemption.”

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5. Little Women (1994) 90%

By all rights, a book’s fifth trip to the big screen shouldn’t be a magnet for audiences, let alone positive reviews, but Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women proved the exception to the rule, earning a very respectable 90 percent on the Tomatometer — not to mention $50 million at the box office, proving once again that a timeless story can succeed no matter how many times it’s told. Women continued a string of period pieces for Bale, one which started with 1992’s Newsies and 1993’s Swing Kids — but where those films were critical and commercial flops, this was something of a prestige picture, even if most of the heavy lifting was done by the titular leading ladies (a list that included Susan Sarandon, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, and Winona Ryder). Here, Bale plays Laurie, the family friend-turned-paramour whose on-again, off-again presence in the life of Amy (played by Dunst and Samantha Mathis) is one of the movie’s subplots — and one of the reasons Women received effusive praise from critics like Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who wrote, “ladies, get out your hand-hemmed handkerchiefs for the loveliest Little Women ever on screen.”

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4. The Fighter (2010) 90%

It took an awful lot of struggle to get it to the screen, but like the pugnacious boxers in its real-life story’s spotlight, David O. Russell’s The Fighter persevered — and although it looked very different from the days when it was supposed to be a Mark Wahlberg/Matt Damon production (or the brief period when Brad Pitt was supposed to step in for Damon), that didn’t put a dent in the number of accolades the movie ultimately acquired. Starring Wahlberg as boxer Micky Ward and Bale as his brother/trainer Dicky, The Fighter earned more than $120 million at the box office and picked up seven Academy Award nominations, winning two — including a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Bale. “Wahlberg gives a deceptively low-key performance as the movie’s still point,” wrote Moira MacDonald for the Seattle Times, “perfectly setting off the crackling fuse that is Bale’s Dicky, a grinning strutter who knows he’s screwed up but can’t quite say goodbye to the limelight.”

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3. Rescue Dawn (2007) 91%

It must have come as awfully small consolation after being imprisoned, tortured, and watching friends die horrible deaths, but before his death in 2001, Dieter Dengler could at least take pride in having lived a life so incredibly fascinating that it provided the inspiration for both an acclaimed documentary and a critically lauded dramatization — both of them directed by the one and only Werner Herzog. After befriending Dengler during the making of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog decided he wasn’t finished telling the story of the former Navy pilot’s escape from a Laotian POW camp, and set about streamlining Dengler’s experiences for Rescue Dawn. Though the liberties Herzog took were criticized by surviving members of Dengler’s escape party, that didn’t prevent Dawn from earning largely positive reviews from critics — many of whom focused on Bale’s physically harrowing journey into Dengler’s painful past, such as the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr, who predicted that audiences will “hang on Bale’s muscular portrayal of a man who refuses to say die.”

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2. American Hustle (2013) 93%

Wigs and prosthetics are often a dead giveaway that an actor (or a movie in general) is trying way too hard to make a sale, and American Hustle is full of ’em. Fortunately, all that artifice stops on the surface. David O. Russell’s ’70s period piece, about a real-life FBI sting operation that used a pair of con artists (played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams) to target corrupt politicians, lays the garish hair and wardrobe on thick, but it makes sense in context, and it’s all backed up by a wall of solid performances; just about the entire cast was nominated for Oscars, including Bale for Best Actor. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a lot of fun: as Colin Covert wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Even at two hours and 20 minutes, the movie doesn’t wear you down. It carries you along with heedless momentum, giddy and exhilarated at its all-American ambition and scam-artist confidence.”

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1. The Dark Knight (2008) 94%

Having already brought an end to the candy-colored, Schumacher-wrought nightmare that gripped the Batman franchise in the late 1990s, Nolan and Bale had fans primed for a successful second act — but even after the smashing success of Batman Begins, few could have guessed just how popular The Dark Knight would be in the summer of 2008. A sprawling superhero epic that somehow managed to make room for jaw-dropping visuals, a compelling storyline, and stellar performances, Knight climbed out from under months of intense speculation — not to mention the shadow cast by Heath Ledger’s shocking death — with a worldwide gross in excess of $1 billion, a towering stack of positive reviews, and a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ledger. Amidst all this, it was easy for Bale’s work to be overlooked — and really, it’s Ledger’s electric performance as the Joker that powers the movie — but without Bale providing a steady counterweight, it wouldn’t have been, in the words of Richard Roeper, “a rich, complex, visually thrilling piece of pop entertainment, as strong as any superhero epic we’ve ever seen.”

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